Interpreting the platform economy against landscape-level change factors

The Prime Minister’s Office in Finland published in late 2017 a list of change factors of the global landscape, with the aim to familiarise decision-makers as well as citizens with the changes and uncertainties we will face in the future. The result of fifteen key factors of change was produced in collaboration with experts across ministries and their strategy work. They also provide the basis for dedicated futures outlooks by various ministries to be published later in 2018.

The fifteen change factors each introduce the identified change and describe the situation until 2030. Additionally, alternative paths and development directions are offered. Rather than predictions, the change factors help prepare for various alternatives around the identified change topics, all the while acknowledging uncertainties.

In this signal post, the fifteen change factors are briefly analysed in the context of the platform economy. The idea was to formulate statements as questions and portray the alternative ways the change factor may be expressed in the platform economy. Some of the change factors can act as high level trends that steer platform development from afar, whereas others have very straightforward impact mechanisms. On the other hand, platforms themselves can influence the change factors and contribute to how the changes take place. The objective of this analysis is to help to map the potential with the platform economy regarding both opportunities and threats in the changing societal landscape. In fact, as the platform economy evolves, any of the issues identified may take a positive or negative turn or a combination of the two.

Political

  1. International order in transition
    • Will the USA host as the basis for leading platform companies?
    • Can China and the rest of Asia challenge the US leadership?
    • Will platforms act as enabling tools in international policy-making?
    • Will platforms be used as enabling tools for conflicts and corruption?
  2. Development of the EU and national states
    • Will the EU develop into a competitive and uniformly close-knit platform economy?
    • Could we face a failure of joint EU activities in the platform economy?
    • Are there going to be nationally or regionally confined platform economies?
  3. Changes in democracy and multiform participation
    • Will platforms act as enablers of accessible knowledge and the information society?
    • Will platforms be used to spread polarisation and misinformation?
    • Will platforms be employed as tools to societal participation in democracy?

Economic

  1. Global economy in transition
    • Are we going to see globally reigning platform monopolies or local platform economies?
    • Is the economic growth from platforms around the world going to be even or uneven?
    • Will platforms support quick profits or sustainable growth?
  2. Economic development in Finland
    • Will Finland succeed as a balanced platform economy on its own?
    • Is Finland going to excel in its niche areas in the global platform economy?
    • Will Finland remain a minor actor in the platform business?
  3. Transition of work
    • Is all work going to be gig work on platforms?
    • Could education, training and skills be provided on platforms on an on-demand basis?

Social

  1. Demography and urbanisation
    • Can platforms bring along a counter-trend to urbanisation and migration?
    • Could platforms help to solve challenges related to ageing?
    • Will platforms be used as connectors between culturally or demographically differing groups?
  2. Changing values and attitudes
    • How will ethics and values be incorporated into platforms?
    • Could different platforms support variability in choices on lifestyles and values?
    • Will platforms be used as a destructive force?
  3. Inequality and disparity
    • Will platforms be employed to empower women and build equal opportunities globally?
    • Will platforms be used to aggravate polarisation of individuals and nations?
    • Can platforms contribute to accessible human health and wellbeing?

Technological

  1. Technological transition
    • Will blockchain, AI, robots, etc. be employed successfully in platforms?
    • Is the role of platforms and advanced technologies to be in control or as a subordinate?
    • Could we face technological underachievement and failure of the platform economy?
    • Will data be the currency of the future technological platforms?
  2. Digital competences in public administration
    • Will the public sector be active in platform management and participation?
    • Is public administration going to be incapable of deploying digital platforms in their own processes?
    • Can the public sector keep up with platform markets?
  3. Resilience of critical infrastructure
    • Will platforms bring intelligence into infrastructure management?
    • Will we be able to ensure resilience regarding digital infrastructures and cyber security?

Ecological

  1. Climate change
    • Could platforms and advanced technologies contribute to effective agreements in climate policy?
    • Will digital platforms increase or decrease the overall environmental burden?
    • Could the platform economy provide the means to survive with climate change impacts?
  2. State of environment and nature
    • Could platforms facilitate monitoring of natural and built environments?
  3. Sustainable use of natural resources
    • Could platforms be used as enabling tools for material and resource management, e.g. recycling?
    • Will sharing platforms promote effectively sustainable, resource-efficient lifestyles and economies?
    • Will unsustainable consumption patterns spread uncontrollably because of platforms?
    • Are platforms, data and related technologies going to increase energy consumption exceedingly?

Selected articles and websites

Prime Minister’s Office: Globaalin toimintaympäristön muutostekijät [Change factors of the global landscape]

Heidi Auvinen

Research Scientist VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd
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The environmental footprint of the platform economy

The platform economy is inevitably responsible for a myriad of environmental impacts, both positive and negative. These impacts are, however, difficult to identify and measure because of the complex impact chains and rebound effects. Very little research results (especially quantitative) on the topic exists at present moment. In the accompanying video, we list some key factors of the environmental footprint of the platform economy relating to (1) technology, (2) digitalisation and (3) patterns of consumption and production.

Technology

Platforms, as any other digital products and services, rely on large volumes of data centres and computing power. These require considerable amounts of energy, especially in the form of electricity and cooling. On the other hand, in the most hands-on meaning of technology, we need various devices to access platforms. Production of smart phones, tablets, computers, etc. is resource consuming and new models come up constantly. Short-lived, out-dated devices end up as electronic waste.

Digitalisation

Intuitively one might assume that through digitalisation, the platform economy would replace physical and material functions with digital and virtual solutions, and thus diminish use of natural resources and reduce harmful environmental impacts. But in fact, oftentimes platforms have a way of mixing the virtual and physical worlds, in some cases even accelerating material transactions. Secondly, digitalisation enables a global outreach, which in turn can increase global logistics. We have already seen this phenomenon with ever-growing online market places with global user populations.

Consumption and production

Perhaps the most intriguing and crucial factor is the question of consumption and production patterns in the platform economy. It brings us to analyse issues such as societal values, user behaviour, business strategies and political agendas. Will our underlying objective within the platform economy be “more with less”, “more and more” or “less is more”? The topical concepts of the circular economy and sharing economy highlight sustainable and responsible aspirations. In the optimal case the platform economy can align with these concepts and for example implement in practice innovations that promote access instead of ownership.

Selected articles and websites

World Economic Forum: How can digital enable the transition to a more sustainable world?
MRonline: The hidden environmental impacts of “platform capitalism”
Government of the Netherlands, Ministry of Economic Affairs: Argument map The Platform Economy
Bemine, Emma Terämä: Sharing – more common than ever & an integral step on our way to sustainable consumption

Heidi Auvinen

Research Scientist VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd
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Problems with blockchain

A lot of hopes are placed on blockchain technology. They range from more modest aspirations, like ensuring secure food chains, to hyperbolic claims of creating economic and socio-political emancipation of humankind. Blockchain is said to offer a decentralised way of doing things while solving the problem of trust, which makes it very appealing for platform economy. What is often left out is the consideration of the negative consequences and the barriers to the wide adoption of the blockchain.

Negative consequences and barriers

The main negative impact on current implementations of blockchain relates to energy usage and consequential environmental and other impacts. Blockchains require a lot of computing power, which in turn requires a lot of electricity and cooling power. For example, for Bitcoin alone it has been calculated that by 2020 it might use as much energy as Denmark. While blockchain-based solutions – or cryptogovernance in general – has been offered as a way to alleviate some environmental problems by increasing traceability and ensuring ownership, the negative impact of these solutions to the environment should not be ignored.

The current architecture of the blockchain is high on energy consumption, and also has problems with scaling. The root problem is that all transactions in the blockchain have to be processed by basically everyone and everyone must have a copy of the global ledger. As the blockchain grows, more and more computing power and bandwidth are required and there is a risk of centralisation of decision making and validation power in the blockchain as only a few want to devote their efforts to keeping the blockchain running.

Along with problems of scaling, the issue of governance in blockchains is an unsolved challenge. Since there is no central actor, there needs to be mechanisms for solving disputes. The forking of The DAO and the discussions around it are a case in point. So while blockchain may offer new decentralised solutions to governance, the technology in itself is not enough.

Possible solutions

There are some solutions to the problem of scaling, such as increasing block size, sharding (breaking the global ledger into smaller pieces) and moving from proof of work consensus mechanism to proof of stake. One interesting solution that also decreases the computational power needed is Holochain. Instead of having a global ledger of transactions, in a holochain everyone has their own “blockchain”, and only the information needed to validate the chains is shared. This means basically that while a blockchain validates transactions with global consensus, a holochain validates people – or to be more precise, the authenticity of the chains of transactions people own.

Whatever the technological solution, a discussion on the negative consequences of blockchain is required to balance the hype. Do we want to implement blockchains everywhere no matter the environmental costs? What are the tradeoffs we are willing to make?

Selected articles and websites

 

Mikko Dufva

Research Scientist VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd
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